We have touched on Jimmy Carter’s political failings, but we have barely begun to exhaust the subject. He was certainly the worst president of the twentieth century. He vies with James Buchanan for the title of worst president in American history. We are old enough to recall how Carter proudly announced that the United States had overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” famously planted a kiss on the cheek of Leonid Brezhnev, and then reacted with shock when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
We also recall how followers of Ayatollah Khomeni took 67 Americans hostage at the American embassy in Tehran. Over the succeeding 444 days, the Carter administration tried idle threats, vain pleas, and ineffectual military action to resolve the hostage crisis. Only the landslide election and subsequent inauguration of Ronald Reagan ultimately freed the hostages and ended the protracted national humiliation.
Henry Kissinger observed that the Carter administration had managed the extraordinary feat of having achieved, at one and the same time, “the worst relations with our allies, the worst relations with our adversaries, and the most serious upheavals in the developing world since the end of the Second World War.”
The source of Carter’s political flaws comes more clearly into focus through the lens of his post-presidential career, a career built on moral preening and personal vanity that has without doubt made him, in the words of Steve Hayward, our worst ex-president. Take, for example, Carter’s crimes against poetry and the English language.
In 1995 Carter collected 44 poems in Always A Reckoning. Here’s “Miss Lillian Sees Leprosy for the First Time”:
When I nursed in a clinic near Bombay,
a small girl, shielding all her leprous sores,
crept inside the door. I moved away,
but then the doctor called, “You take this case!”
First I found a mask, and put it on,
quickly gave the child a shot and then,
not well, I slipped away to be alone
and scrubbed my entire body red and raw.
I faced her treatment every week with dread
and loathing–of the chore, not the child.
As time passed, I was less afraid,
and managed not to turn my face away.
Her spirit bloomed as sores began to fade.
She’d raise her anxious, searching eyes to mine
to show she trusted me. We’d smile and say
a few Marathi words, and then reach and hold
each other’s hands. And then love grew between
us, so that, later, when I kissed her lips
I didn’t feel unclean.
Here’s the aptly titled “Considering the Void”:
When I behold the charm
of evening skies, their lulling endurance;
the patterns of stars with names
of bears and dogs, a swan, a virgin;
other planets that the Voyager showed
were like and so unlike our own,
with all their diverse moons,
bright discs, weird rings, and cratered faces;
comets with their streaming tails
bent by pressure from our sun;
the skyscape of our Milky Way
holding in its shimmering disc
an infinity of suns
(or say a thousand billion);
knowing there are holes of darkness
gulping mass and even light,
knowing that this galaxy of ours
is one of multitudes
in what we call the heavens,
it troubles me. It troubles me.
Well, it troubles me that a man who has no sense of meter, or rhythm, or metaphor, or figurative speech — one who has, in short, no talent for poetry — would choose to shape prosaic banalities into poetic form and publish them for all the world to see. Why would anyone do that?
I think the answer would also bear on the reason a man with no literary or artistic talent generally would choose to publish a novel and adorn the jacket with a painting he himself had fashioned in the style of a sort of poor man’s Grandma Moses. See The Hornet’s Nest by one Jimmy Carter.
O great poet, novelist, artist, builder, seer, peacemaker, thank you. Thank you because I am joyful. Thank you because I am well. Centuries will pass, and the generations still to come will regard us as the happiest of mortals, as the most fortunate of men, because we lived in the century of centuries, because we were privileged to see you, our inspired leader. Yes, and we regard ourselves as the happiest of mortals because we are the contemporaries of a man who never had an equal in world history.